After Earth & The InternshipJune 22, 2013
According to British market analyst, Nick Meaney, an incontrovertible algorithm reveals that any film starring Will Smith is guaranteed to make money. No sooner had we imbibed this piece of scientific wisdom than Smith appeared in After Earth, a movie of incontrovertible mediocrity that suggests the algorithm is a dud.
No one ever claimed a film has to be any good to be successful. As the moronic but entertaining Fast and Furious 6 packs ‘em in at the box office, After Earth has been limping along, disappointing audiences and reviewers. I watched the film in Reykjavik, where movies are stopped in the middle for an intermission. As Icelanders filed out for softdrinks and popcorn, I initially thought the projectionist had decided the movie was so bad it had to be aborted and the audience had silently agreed.
Will Smith is doubly responsible for this piece of cinematic space junk. Not only does he play a leading role, he also came up with the story idea, although he is not to blame for a dire script written by Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan – a director whose name is far more interesting than his movies.
One thousand years into the future, humanity has trashed Earth and migrated to another planet. In the process they have acquired extraterrestial enemies who attack them with nasty blind monsters called Ursas, that track their prey by sensing fear.
Smith plays General Cypher Raige (yes, that’s really his name), a famous hero who feels no fear, rendering him invisible to the Ursas, which he slices up with a large, futuristic switchblade. His teenage son, Kitai (Jaden Smith), wants to be a ‘ranger’ like his father, but has not yet passed his initiation course.
For some reason the General decides to take grumpy, whining Kitai along on a mission. Their space ship, however, is caught in a freak meteor storm and crash lands into a planet that just happens to be Earth, now classed as too dangerous to support human life. Miraculously, Cypher and Kitai are the only survivors, but Dad has broken his legs. The wimpy son must now go on a quest to retrieve an emergency beacon from the tail of the wreck that has landed a hundred kilometres away.
The rest of the film consists of Kitai coping with rampaging baboons, poisonous leeches, overgrown eagles, predatory felines, and – quel surprise! – an Ursa that has escaped from the wrecked spaceship. While doing this he has flashbacks about the Ursa that killed his sister while Dad was away on a mission. This is the source of his limitless supply of adolescent angst.
You don’t need to hear how it ends because the plot is as predictable as a traffic light. No science fiction cliché is left untapped, with bits and pieces picked up from many other films. The Ursa, for instance, is a close cousin of the monster from the Alien series. But this is only the beginning of After Earth’s problems. Despite being little more than a string of action sequences the pace of the story is plodding, the dialogue woeful, and the acting distinctly sub-par. Will Smith talks in a slow, robotic tone, as a mark of his authority and self-control; while son, Jaden, always looks like he is about to burst into tears.
The father-and-son theme is milked for maximum sentimentality, aided by a heavy-handed musical score. The sheer inertia of Will’s performance, even allowing for two broken legs, is overshadowed by Jaden’s non-stop display of panting, gasping, snivelling and whimpering. When the inevitable moment arrives and he finds his mojo, it strains credulity.
Young Jaden is so unconvincing the entire film has an air of nepotism, as if Will had devised a star vehicle for his boy. Were the Smiths sharp enough to realise, at any stage, that art was mirroring life in this story of a son trying to prove himself to a famous father? It often seems there is an message about good parenting being smuggled into this tale, although it’s a strange father and mother (Sophie Okonedo) who agree it’s a great idea to take a disturbed teenager on a military campaign. One imagines Jaden at the breakfast table: “Please Dad, do I have to be an action hero?”
The most interesting critiques of After Earth have centred on the film’s relationship to Scientology. Apparently the emphases on overcoming one’s fears, controlling the emotions, and doing a quick audit of the self, are very much in line with L. Ron Hubbard’s mumbo jumbo. Naturally the Scientologists have denied any connection. Given the quality of this space-age saga that seems a very sensible disclaimer.
After Earth may allegedly be a commericial for Scientology, but the new Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson comedy, The Internship, is one long product placement for the Google corporation. The supposedly hilarious premise for this story is that two middle aged wristwatch salesmen lose their jobs and apply for an internship with Google in Palo Alto. They find themselves working alongside a huge host of computer nerds half their age, competing for a tiny number of permanent positions.
From beginning to end there is not the slightest criticism of Google’s corporate recruiting style. Our heroes have been included in the program because Google likes to try ‘something different’. The fact that 95 per cent of the interns will be dumped is as natural as one of those TV shows in which contestants are eliminated from week to week. The demeaning games and role play exercises are all good clean fun, while draconian rules are accepted as necessary discipline.
Google is presented as a stern but playful parent, willing to reward those children who work hard and show the right qualities of “Googliness”.
For Australian viewers the funniest part may be that Vince Vaughn’s character is named Billy McMahon. The thought of Vaughn playing our most maladroit Prime Minister of all time has comic possibilities. Unfortunately, it is only a coincidence of names.
The pairing of Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who plays his buddy, Nick Campbell, is an attempt to recapture the successful chemistry of Wedding Crashers (2005), which was a more successful package, although hardly less formulaic. That film had the bonus of Christopher Walken, the contemporary king of weird. None of the supporting actors in The Internship have any memorable presence.
This includes Rose Byrne, as Dana, a minor executive for whom Nick conceives a passion. She is at least allowed to keep her Australian accent.
The villain is Max Mingella, who plays an arrogant young prick named Graham. In the standard manner of these films, Graham’s group is perpetually competing with Billy and Nick’s group, while the other interns merely provide background noise. The other standard feature is that Graham’s group must win every challenge but still be overcome by our heroes. This process enables the viewer to separate true Googliness from mere ambition.
For most of the film Billy and Nick keep up a stream of blather that is obviously intended to allow viewers no time to reflect on the inanity of the story. This routine occasionally descends into unintelligibility, which made me regret that the subtitles at the Háskóla Bió cinema were in Icelandic, not English. Many of the bits I did hear made me wish the dialogue was in Icelandic as well.
One of the irritating features of so many of today’s Hollywood comedies, is that all the characters have been carefully selected as lessons in cultural diversity. In Billy and Nick’s group we have the usual blend of different ethnicities, body types and psychologcal eccentricities. We are obliged to find them all equally loveable, demonstrating our openess and tolerance. Yet they are all stereotypes, seemingly designed to reinforce narrow-minded attitudes.
The superior wisdom and experience of Billy and Nick is demonstrated when they take their youthful charges out to a strip joint, make them sink tequilas and get into a punch up. Now that’s mentorship! To drive the message home, one of the more disaffected members of the group, Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), has to confess to Nick that it was the best night of his life.
This strident celebration of teenage slobbery, engineered by two men in their mid forties, sits oddly with the lean, clean image of Google that permeates the rest of the film. The only way to read this interlude is in terms of self-actualisation. By going out and getting plastered these young computer nerds loosen up and discover their real personalities, with Billy and Nick as presiding gurus. Following this moment of healthy catharsis they are able to pursue Googliness with greater freedom.
Finally, it is time that someone wrote a thesis on the role of pizza in modern American cinema. I’ve lost count of the number of films I’ve seen over the past few years in which pizza plays a starring role. It is treated as nectar and ambrosia, the Holy Grail, a symbol of industry and innovation. A piece of pizza is everything most characters in these films seem to desire. Pizza represents both succour and saviour. It used to be traditional for a comedy to end with a wedding, nowadays an orgy of pizza is the more likely option.
This shows how Hollywood has progressed in recent decades. In place of those wholesome, outdated American values one finds in a Frank Capra film it seems that all viewers crave today is extra cheese.
After Earth, USA, rated M, 100 mins
The Internship, USA, rated M, 119 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 22, 2013